Toe Much Information
The first time my father took me to a chiropodist, I was ten years old and already getting ingrown toenails. He made an appointment with a man who had an office in Morristown, New Jersey, a town about thirty miles away. Usually my father came into the exam room and did most of the talking—he was loquacious and spared me the pressure of small talk, which I wasn’t good at. My father was Southern and excelled at small talk.
The doctor placed my feet on a high table, gave a little smile, and poured some sort of freezing agent on both toes—the way a bartender will pour a shot of alcohol—the container going up and down in the air rhythmically to measure a full jigger. This was some cocktail. In a minute or so, my toes were numb. A pair of nail clippers appeared in his left hand. He quickly cut little portions of nail out of the corners of both sides of each big toenail—little pie-slice triangles—some of which were growing into my flesh. I was a weird kid and imagined that toe-jam would someday be a delicacy of native peoples of the East Coast of North America when they ran out of food and water. It would be an acquired taste, but the nourishment, however small, could be plentiful if taken in large quantities.
He worked fast. A couple of snips, tweezers tugged pieces of nail out, antiseptic dabbed on all four miniature wounds, two nice gauze pads, some white surgical tape and I was out of the there with my own little smile, my father still talking nonstop. We were like a vaudeville act. My father always took me because he had ingrown toenails himself—as did his father—so maybe he felt guilty, or maybe he was relieved that he wasn’t responsible for what I got from the other side of the family. Toenails were small in the great selection of inherited traits that could go bad. And they only hurt when you walked.
I became a regular customer of the chiropodist, my father still coming inside the exam room, still telling stories—but my toes were not amused. My right toe took a turn for the worse. It became extremely ingrown and when the doctor examined it, he said I needed minor surgery. So, again, more freezing agent, but this time he added a needle. That was the worst part. When the toe was good and numb, he went to work with his little smile. I propped up a magazine so I couldn’t see what he was doing. Then I realized my father had stopped talking. I glanced over at him and he looked like he was going to be sick. He had to leave the room. Later he told me there was a lot of blood and he couldn’t believe how deep the chiropodist was digging into my big toe. I viewed it as a sequel to Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Aliens were depositing little pods in the corner of my toenails at night as I slept, and the pods grew large enough to trap a small child. I was spared because my toe-jam was the alluvial soil of a non-terrestrial incursion. My toes were strategic. Needless to say, the chiropodist was the scariest person on this or any planet.
And yet there were months and even years when my toes went into remission. In fact, whole decades of toe memory have been wiped out, probably, by the infusion of more glaring inherited traits—like the Lithuanian temper tantrums inherited from my mother. Her forbearers were occupied by both the Nazis and the Russians from 1940–58. They went and lived in the forest and basically became terrorists. That’s what I had: a temper that lived in the forest but came out at night to kill Soviets.
So, I hitch-hiked to California. My first years living there, I don’t have any toe memories. Of course, I was living in the Haight-Ashbury, sleeping on a water bed with my old lady, and buying groceries at a place called The Food Conspiracy. I don’t remember anything about my toes. Apparently, culture shock, smoking large amounts of weed, and listening to Jefferson Airplane were antidotes to toe-pain. Being in my first live-in relationship with its inherent tensions, stresses, jealousies, and heartaches provided a new and different pain. Toe-pain, I soon found out, was modest in comparison to girl-pain. When I moved back East, to Chapel Hill, North Carolina, again, my toes rarely hurt. Without cell phones, the Internet, apps, and social media, there was nothing to occupy you in the ’70s except humanities and the opposite sex.
It wasn’t until I moved to New York City that I went back to a toe doctor. By now, they were called podiatrists. I was a starving actor/writer who had been evicted from so many illegal sublets that I broke down and got a full-time job with health insurance. The doctor’s office was around the corner from where I worked. Here was a different kind of girl-pain though. The podiatrist was a feral, jumpy man who had a bombshell female assistant who wore her red-brown hair short and had the sad, ravished eyes you’d see in a religious painting. I forgot to mention, she was buxom and a seething voluptuary. When she strutted around the office in her extravagantly seductive way, the podiatrist got whiplash while he cut my toenails! That’s when I started cutting my own nails.
When I moved back to California in the ’90s, I got married—a whole new plateau of girl-pain. My wife was doing a fellowship at UCLA, and we had her health coverage. The podiatrist I went to there was a tall, clueless man with glasses (like me) who—even when I yelped (not the online reviewing service)—failed to acknowledge my pain. He was the first doctor to tell me he could put a chemical on both big toes so that the nails could not grow back in. I dismissed this as a cheap way out of a congenital condition and extremely unnatural. Going to crazy doctors and having them dig into my flesh was completely natural, however.
It wasn’t until years later, when we met friends at Dockweiler Beach one weekend that I noticed something going on with my right toe. I was raised in New Jersey where the shore water flowing up from the Gulf Stream was the temperature of your bath tub. Southern California, despite appearances, is plagued by the Alaska current. The water is icy cold. You literally can’t go in until July or August. Even then it’s bracing. On this day I was body-surfing and noticed a strange scraping against my right big toe. I got out of the water and noticed a wave had dislodged my right toenail from its nail bed! Now I ask you, how many waves have ripped your toenails off? This was not supposed to happen. I had listened to the Beach Boys and everything. The nail grew back but was never straight again.
A decade later we were visiting my wife’s sister in Maine. We had rented a cabin, (which Mainers call a “camp”). It was August and my wife and daughter and I were at the end of two weeks of swimming, boating, and lobster-eating bliss. We were trying to haul a large red canoe out of the lake onto the dock in the dark. We heaved and the canoe landed with all its weight on my left toe. What are chances that something as large a canoe could land on a toe? I could take this toe to Vegas and make some serious money. From that point on, and for years afterward, the nail started growing sideways.
When my wife went to work for the County of Los Angeles, our coverage switched to Kaiser. My primary care physician gave me a referral to podiatry. The person who walked into the cubicle was a cute, petite blond woman dressed in a white lab coat that fell below her knees. She studied my canoe toe and spoke in a bewitching voice.
“This toenail has to come off.” Another variation on girl-pain. She was no longer cute, her voice no longer enchanting. “What do you mean, off?”
She waited politely while my brain caught up. “Don’t worry. I’ll give you an anesthetic.”
I had a feeling the anesthetic would be the worst part. I was right. She also told me about that certain chemical that would stop the nail from ever growing back.
Surely, given a fresh start, my left toenail would do the right thing. “I want to see if it’ll grow back correctly one more time.”
She shrugged. “It’s up to you.”
The needle, even with the freeze spray, had me writhing in the chair. While I contemplated putting my head through the ceiling, the nail was off and a bandage had hidden the wound.
I spent the next two years watching my left toenail grow not sideways, but halfway out, then straight down into my nail bed. You can heal from psychological trauma, but toe trauma—forget it. If you’re neurotic, they don’t just remove your brain, do they? When I came back to the doctor, I had decided that was it. No more toenails. She walked into the cubicle in her long white lab coat like a child playing doctor.
All flirty, she said, “Do they both have to come off this time?”
I nodded gravely. “Give me the chemical.”
She recited a chilling list of items to an assistant. This time she sprayed the freezing agent directly onto the needle as she jammed it into the first toe. When I didn’t jump, she said dryly, “Does it hurt, or are you being stoic?”
Trying not to scream, I gasped, “I’m. Breathing. Through. It.”
She was impressed. “Good.” She stuck the needle somewhere else and this time I practically levitated. The second toe was even worse. Toe- and girl-pain to the 10th power. Kind of like marriage. As I had when I was a kid (and last week), I placed a magazine in front of my face so I couldn’t view the procedure.
Finally, I heard her say, “They’re both off.” She sounded sad.
I was sad too. To see them grow in the first place. I watched her swab the chemical below both cuticles and pile a thick, white cream on top of both nail beds. I didn’t realize the chemical was actually burning the nail root and the cream was stopping the burn. Whatever works. She wrapped both toes in gauze and small ace bandages. When I came back two weeks later, the bandages were off and the wounds had little crescent scabs smiling at the cuticles. They looked like newborns with breakfast cereal on their faces.
She peered down at my toes. “Sometimes they grow back anyway. If they do, just come back and we’ll do it all over again.”
To be continued… I hope not.
Copyright © 2014 Joseph Eastburn
Joseph Eastburn lived fourteen years in New York City, where his parents met on stage at the Cherry Lane Theatre in 1941. Working as an actor/singer, he appeared in over thirty-five productions, including a summer at the Mount Washington Valley Theatre in North Conway, NH. He graduated from the Metropolitan campus of SUNY at Empire State College and earned a master’s degree in professional writing from USC, where he taught for ten years. His writing has appeared in The Cellar Door, Journal 31, Reed Magazine and The Sun Magazine, and his first novel Kiss Them Good-Bye was published by Morrow in 1993. He is writing a full-length novel on Twitter, The Summer of Love and Death (http://twitter.com/darknovel).